The Advantages of Defeat

"Our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a disaster; we not only deserved it, but needed it. It should give us new confidence in our cause, in our strength, in our final success." Soon after the start of the Civil War, Charles Eliot Norton urged the Union Army to toughen its resolve.

By Charles Eliot Norton

When the news flashed over the country, on Monday, the 22d of July, that our army, whose advance into Virginia had been so long expected, and had been watched with such intense interest and satisfaction,—that our army had been defeated, and was flying back in disorder to the intrenchments around Washington, it was but natural that the strong revulsion of feeling and the bitter disappointment should have been accompanied by a sense of dismay, and by alarm as to what was to follow. The panic which had disgraced some of our troops at the close of the fight found its parallel in the panic in our own hearts. But as the smoke of the battle and the dust of the retreat, which overshadowed the land in a cloud of lies and exaggerations, by degrees cleared away, men regained the even balance of their minds and felt a not unworthy shame at their transient fears.

It is now plain that our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a disaster; that we not only deserved it, but needed it; that its ultimate consequences are better than those of a victory would have been. Far from being disheartened by it, it should give us new confidence in our cause, in our strength, in our final success. There are lessons which every great nation must learn which are cheap at any cost, and for some of those lessons the defeat of the 21st of July was a very small price to pay. The essential question now is, Whether this schooling has been sufficient and effectual, or whether we require still further hard discipline to enforce its instructions upon us.

In this moment of pause and compelled reflection, it is for us to examine closely the spirit and motives with which we have engaged in war, and to determine the true end for which the war must be carried on. It is no time for indulging in fallacies of the fancy or in feebleness of counsel. The temper of the Northern people, since the war was forced upon them, has been in large measure noble and magnanimous. The sudden interruption of peace, the prospect of a decline of long continued prosperity, were at once and manfully faced. An eager and emulous zeal in the defense of the imperiled liberties and institutions of the nation showed itself all over the land, and in every condition of life. None who lived through the months of April and May can ever forget the heroic and ideal sublimity of the time. But as the weeks went on, as the immediate alarm that had roused the invincible might of the people passed away, something of the spirit of over-confidence, of excited hope, of satisfied vanity mingled with and corrupted the earlier and purer emotion. The war was to be a short one. Our enemies would speedily yield before the overwhelming force arrayed against them; they would run from Northern troops; we were sure of easy victory. There was little sober foreboding, as our army set out from Washington on its great advance. The troops moved forward with exultation, as if going on a holiday and festive campaign; and the nation that watched them shared in their careless confidence, and prophesied a speedy triumph. But the event showed how far such a spirit was from that befitting a civil war like this. Never were men engaged in a cause which demanded more seriousness of purpose, more modesty and humility of pretension.

The duty before us is honorable in proportion to its difficulty. God has given us work to do not only for ourselves, but for coming generations of men. He has imposed on us a task which, if well performed, will require our most strenuous endeavors and our most patient and unremitting exertions. We are fairly engaged in a war which cannot be a short one, even though our enemies should before long lay down their arms; for it is a war not merely to support and defend the Constitution and to retake the property of the United States, not merely to settle the question of the right of a majority to control an insolent and rebellious minority in the republic, nor to establish the fact of the national existence and historic unity of the United States; but it is also and more essentially a war for the establishment of civilization in that immense portion of our country in which for many years barbarism has been gaining power. It is for the establishment of liberty and justice, of freedom of conscience and liberty of thought, of equal law and of personal rights, throughout the South. If these are not to be secured without the abolition of slavery, it is a war for the abolition of slavery. We are not making war to reestablish an old order of things, but to set up a new one. We are not giving ourselves and our fortunes for the purpose of fighting a few battles, and then making peace, restoring the Southern States to their old place in the Union,—but for the sake of destroying the root from which this war has sprung, and of making another such war impossible. It is not worth while to do only half or a quarter of our work. But if we do it thoroughly, as we ought, the war must be a long one, and will require from us long sacrifices. It is well to face up to the fact at once, that this generation is to be compelled to frugality, and that luxurious expenses upon trifles and superfluities must be changed for the large and liberal costliness of a noble cause. We are not to expect or hope for a speedy return of what is called prosperity; but we are greatly and abundantly prosperous, if we succeed in extending and establishing the principles which alone can give dignity and value to national or individual life, and without which, material abundance, success in trade, and increase of wealth are evidences rather of the decline than of the progress of a state. We, who have so long been eager in the pursuit and accumulation of riches, are now to show more generous energies in the free spending of our means to gain the invaluable objects for which we have gone to war. There is nothing disheartening in this prospect. Our people, accustomed as they have been during late years to the most lavish use of money, and to general extravagance in expense, have not yet lost the tradition of the economies and thrift of earlier times, and will not find it difficult to put them once more into practice. The burden will not fall upon any single class; and when each man, whatever be his station in life, is called upon to lower his scale of living, no one person will find it too hard to do what all others are doing.

But if such be the objects and the prospects of the war, it is plain that they require more sober thought and more careful forecasting and more thorough preparation than have thus far been given to them. If we be the generation chosen to accomplish the work that lies ready to our hands, if we be commissioned to so glorious and so weighty an enterprise, there is but one spirit befitting our task. The war, if it is to be successful, must be a religious war: not in the old sense of that phrase, not a war of violent excitement and passionate enthusiasm, not a war in which the crimes of cruel bigots are laid to the charge of divine impulse, but a war by itself, waged with dignified and solemn strength, with clean hands and pure hearts,—a war calm and inevitable in its processes as the judgments of God. When Cromwell's men went out to win the victory at Winceby Fight, their watchword was "Religion." Can we in our great struggle for liberty and right adopt any other watchword than this? Do we require another defeat and more suffering to bring us to a sense of our responsibility to God for the conduct and the issue of this war?

It is only by taking the highest ground, by raising ourselves to the full conception of what is involved in this contest, that we shall secure success, and prevent ourselves from sinking to the level of those who are fighting against us. The demoralization necessarily attendant upon all wars is to be met and overcome only by simple and manly religious conviction and effort. It will be one of the advantages of defeat to have made it evident that a regiment of bullies and prizefighters is not the best stuff to compose an army. "Your men are not vindictive enough," Mr. Russell is reported to have said, as he watched the battle. It was the saying of a shrewd observer, but it expresses only an imperfect apprehension of the truth. Vindictiveness is not the spirit our men should have, but a resoluteness of determination, as much more to be relied upon than a vindictive passion as it is founded upon more stable and more enduring qualities of character. The worst characters of our great cities may be the fit equals of Mississippi or Arkansas ruffians, but the mass of our army is not to be brought down to the standard of rowdies or the level of barbarians. The men of New England and of the West do not march under banners with the device of "Booty and Beauty," though General Beauregard has the effrontery to declare it, and Bishop, now General, Polk the ignorance to utter similar slanders. The atrocities committed on our wounded and prisoners by the "chivalry" of the South may excite not only horror, hut a wild fury of revenge. But our cause should not be stained with cruelty and crime, even in the name of vengeance. If the war is simply one in which brute force is to prevail, if we are fighting only for lust and pride and domination, then let us have our "Ellsworth Avengers," and let us slay the wounded of our enemy without mercy; let us burn their hospitals, let us justify their, as yet, false charges against us; let us admit the truth of the words of the Bishop of Louisiana, that the North is prosecuting this war "with circumstances of barbarity which it was fondly believed would never more disgrace the annals of a civilized people." But if we, if our brothers in the army, are to lose the proud distinctions of the North, and to be brought down to the level of the tender mercies and the humane counsels of slaveholders and slave-drivers, there would be little use in fighting. If our institutions at the North do not produce better, more humane, and more courageous men than those of the South, when taken in the mass, there is no reason for the sacrifice of blood and treasure in their support. War must be always cruel; it is not to be waged on principles of tenderness; but a just, a religious war can be waged only mercifully, with no excess, with no circumstance of avoidable suffering. Our enemies are our outward consciences, and their reproaches may warn us of our dangers.

The soldiers of the Northern army generally are men capable of understanding the force of moral considerations. They are intelligent, independent, vigorous,—as good material as an army ever was formed from. A large proportion of them have gone to the war from the best motives, and with clear appreciation of the nature and grounds of the contest. But they require to be confirmed in their principles, and to be strengthened against the temptations of life in the camp and in the field, by the voice and support of the communities from which they have come. If the country is careless or indifferent as to their moral standard, they will inevitably become so themselves, and lose the perception of the objects for which they are fighting, forgetting their responsibilities, not only as soldiers, but as good men. It is one of the advantages of defeat to force the thoughts which camp-life may have rendered unfamiliar back into the soldier's mind. The boastfulness of the advance is gone,—and there is chance for sober reflection.

It is especially necessary for our men, unaccustomed to the profession of arms, and entering at once untried upon this great war, to take a just and high view of their new calling: to look at it with the eyes, not of mercenaries, but of men called into their country's service; to regard it as a life which is not less, but more difficult than any other to be discharged with honor. "Our profession," said Washington, "is the chastest of all; even the shadow of a fault tarnishes the luster of our finest achievements." Our soldiers in Virginia, and in the other Slave States, have not only their own reputation to support, but also that of the communities from which they come. There must be a rivalry in generous efforts among the troops of different States. Shall we not now have our regiments which by their brave and honorable conduct shall win appellations not less noble than that of the Auvergne sans tache, "Auvergne without a stain"?

If the praise that Mr. Lincoln bestowed upon our men in his late Message to Congress be not undeserved, they are bound to show qualities such as no other common soldiers have ever been called to exhibit. There are among them more men of character, intelligence, and principle than were ever seen before in the ranks. There should be a higher tone in our service than in that of any other people; and it would be a reproach to our institutions, if our soldiers did not show themselves not only steady and brave in action, undaunted in spirit, unwearied in energy, but patient of discipline, self-controlled, and forbearing. The disgrace to our arms of the defeat at Bull Run was not so great as that of the riotous drunkenness and disorderly conduct of our men during the two or three days that succeeded at Washington. If our men are to be the worthy soldiers of so magnificent a cause as that in which they are engaged, they must raise themselves to its height. Battles may be won by mere human machines, by men serving for eleven dollars a month; but a victory such as we have to gain can be won only by men who know for what and why they are fighting, and who are conscious of the dignity given to them and the responsibility imposed upon them by the sacredness of their cause. The old flag, the stars and stripes, must not only be the symbol in their eyes of past glories and of the country's honor, but its stars must shine before them with the light of liberty, and its stripes must be the emblem of the even and enduring lines of equal justice.

The retreat from Bull Run and the panic that accompanied it were not due to cowardice among our men. During long hours our troops had fought well, and showed their gallantry under the most trying circumstances. They were not afraid to die. It was not strange that raw volunteers, as many of them were, inefficiently supported, and poorly led, should at length give way before superior force, and yield to the weakness induced by exhaustion and hunger. But the lesson of defeat would he imperfectly learned, did not the army and the nation alike gain from it a juster sense than they before possessed of the value of individual life.

Never has life been so much prized and so precious as it has become in America. Never before has each individual been of so much worth. It costs more to bring up a man here, and he is worth more when brought up, than elsewhere. The long peace and the extraordinary amount of comfort which the nation has enjoyed have made us (speaking broadly) fond of life and tender of it. We of the North have looked with astonishment at the recklessness of the South concerning it. We have thought it braver to save than to spend it; and a questionable humanity has undoubtedly led us sometimes into feeble sentimentalities, and false estimates of its value. We have been in danger of thinking too much of it, and of being mean-spirited in its use. But the first sacrifice for which war calls is life; and we must revise our estimates of its value, if we would conduct our war to a happy end.

To gain that end, no sacrifice can be too precious or too costly. The shudder with which we heard the first report that three thousand of our men were slain was but the sign of the blow that our hearts received. But there must be no shrinking from the prospect of the death of our soldiers. Better than that we should fail that a million men should die on the battle field. It is not often that men can have the privilege to offer their lives for a principle; and when the opportunity comes, it is only the coward that does not welcome it with gladness. Life is of no value in comparison with the spiritual principles from which it gains its worth. No matter how many lives it costs to defend or secure truth or justice or liberty, truth and justice and liberty must be defended and secured. Self-preservation must yield to Truth's preservation. The little human life is for today,—the principle is eternal. To die for truth, to die open-eyed and resolutely for the "good old cause," is not only honor, but reward. "Suffering is a gift not given to every one," said one of the Scotch martyrs in 1684, "and I desire to bless the Lord with my whole heart and soul that He has counted such a poor thing as I am worthy of the gift of suffering."

The little value of the individual in comparison with the principles upon which the progress and happiness of the race depend is a lesson enforced by the analogies of Nature, as well as by the evidence of history and the assurance of faith. Nature is careless of the single life. Her processes seem wasteful, but out of seeming waste she produces her great and durable results. Everywhere in her works are the signs of life cut short for the sake of some effect more permanent than itself. And for the establishing of those immortal foundations upon which the human race is to stand firm in virtue and in hope, for the building of the walls of truth, there will be required no scanty expenditure of individual life. Men are nothing in the count,—man is everything.

The spirit of the nation will be shown in its readiness to meet without shrinking such sacrifice of life as may be demanded in gaining our end. We must all suffer and rejoice together,—but let there be no unmanly or unwomanly fear of bloodshed. The deaths of our men from sickness, from camp epidemics, are what we should fear and prevent; death on the battlefield we have no right to dread. The men who die in this cause die well; they could wish for no more honorable end of life.

The honor lost in our recent defeat cannot be regained,—but it is indeed one of the advantages of defeat to teach men the preciousness of honor, the necessity of winning and keeping it at any cost. Honor and duty are but two names for the same thing in war. But the novelty of war is so great to us, we are so unpracticed in it, and we have thought so little of it heretofore as concerning ourselves, that there is danger lest we fail at first to appreciate its finer elements, and neglect the opportunities it affords for the practice of virtues rarely called out in civil life. The common boast of the South, that there alone was to be found the chivalry of America, and that among the Southern people was a higher strain of courage and a keener sense of honor than among the people of the North, is now to be brought to the test.

There is no need to repeat the commonplaces about bravery and honor. But we and our soldiers should remember that it is not the mere performance of set work that is required of them, but the valiant and generous alacrity of noble minds in deeds of daring and of courtesy. Though the science of war has in modern times changed the relations and the duties of men on the battlefield from what they were in the old days of knighthood, yet there is still room for the display of stainless valor and of manful virtue. Honor and courage are part of our religion; and the coward or the man careless of honor in our army of liberty should fall under heavier shame than ever rested on the disgraced soldier in former times. The sense of honor is finer than the common sense of the world. It counts no cost and reckons no sacrifice great. "Then the king wept, and dried his eyes, and said, 'Your courage had neere hand destroyed you, for I call it folly knights to abide when they be overmatched.' 'Nay,' said Sir Lancelot and the other, 'for once shamed may never be recovered."'

The examples of Bayard,—sans peer et sans reproche,—of Sidney, of the heroes of old or recent days, are for our imitation. We are bound to be no less worthy of praise and remembrance than they. They did nothing too high for us to imitate. And in their glorious company we may hope that some of our names may yet be enrolled, to stand as the inspiring exemplars and the models for coming times. If defeat has brought us shame, it has brought us also firmer resolve. No man can he said to know himself, or to have assurance of his force of principle and character, till he has been tested by the fires of trial in the crucible of defeat. The same is true of a nation. The test of defeat is the test of its national worth. Defeat shows whether it deserves success. We may well be grateful and glad for our defeat of the 21st of July, if we wrest from it the secrets of our weakness, and are thrown back by it to the true sources of strength. If it has done its work thoroughly, if we profit sufficiently by the advantages it has afforded us, we may be well content that so slight a harm has brought us so great a good. But if not, then let us be ready for another and another defeat, till our souls shall be tempered and our forces disciplined for the worthy attainment of victory. For victory we shall in good time have.

There is no need to fear or be doubtful of the issue. As soon as we deserve it, victory will be ours; and were we to win it before, it would be but an empty and barren triumph. All history is but the prophecy of our final success,—and Milton has put the prophecy into words: "Go on, O Nation, never to be disunited! Be the praise and the heroic song of all posterity! Merit this, but seek only virtue, not to extend your limits, (for what needs to win a fading triumphant laurel out of the tears of wretched men?) but to settle the pure worship of God in his church, and justice in the state. Then shall the hardest difficulties smooth out themselves before thee; envy shall sink to hell, craft and malice be confounded, whether it be home-bred mischief or outlandish cunning; yea, other nations will then covet to serve thee, for lordship and victory are but the pages of justice and virtue. Use thine invincible might to do worthy and godlike deeds, and then he that seeks to break your union a cleaving curse be his inheritance to all generations!"

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